BOOKS FOR FANTASY AUTHORS XXIV: SAVAGE PASTIMES

From time to time I’ll recommend—not review, mind you, but recommend, and yes, there is a difference—books that I think fantasy (and science fiction and horror and all other) authors should have on their shelves. Some may be new and still in print, some may be difficult to find, but all will be, at least in my humble opinion, essential texts for any author, so worth looking for.

Mentioned in the footnotes of Steven Pinker’s tomelike The Better Angels of Our Nature was a book whose title and subject matter caught my eye, so as I do with dozens of books—maybe a dozen a month, actually—I tossed it onto my Amazon list then just thought, screw it, I’ll order it. And it only sat on my “to read” shelf for a few weeks before I picked it up and was immediately taken not just with its message, but with the author’s easy, readable style. In Savage Pastimes: A Cultural History of Violent Entertainment, Queens College professor Harold Schechter makes a case, like Pinker’s, that “the good old days” were not as good as some people would have us think. And this is reflected in the media of the time.

If you’re one of those people—and “those people” seem more and more to be “almost everybody” in the hyper-aware state of affairs that is America in 2018—who think that the world, or at least Western culture, is disintegrating under our feet, that discourse has reached an all time low, that the country if not the world is being ripped apart by escalating violence, and that things used to be better at some idealized point in the past, whatever that Golden Age might be for you, well…

You’re wrong.

Yes, you can see violence in media. Yes, you can see violence in real life—just turn on any TV news channel at any time on any given day. But in the same way that Pinker made a convincing case that real violence is continuing the sharp decline begun in the 1990s, so too does Schechter make a convincing case that violence in fiction of various media, especially fiction aimed at children, is actually on the decline as well.

At the end of the first chapter of Savage Pastimes, Schechter asks a question that, to my mind, is this book’s statement of purpose: the question he will then go on to try to answer:

The current uproar over media sensationalism rests  on two premises: that popular culture is significantly more vicious and depraved than it used to be, and that we live in uniquely violent times. Everyone seems to accept these propositions as the obvious, irrefutable truth.

But what if they were wrong?

He then begins to dig deeply into our shared mythic tradition, and it doesn’t take much digging to start to find the blood and guts that poured out of ancient myths and up through Grimm’s fairytales. Broadsides detailing real life murders, replete with gruesome drawings, were the mass market scandal sheets of the supposedly straight-laced Victorian era.

In what I think is the whole point of the book, Schechter writes, in Chapter Four, on a page that features an old woodcut depicting a crowd of people attending the autopsy of an accused killer as cheering spectators, guts spilled out on the floor to be lapped up by a dog:

Those who deplore the current state of American society and accuse the media of pandering to, if not actually creating, an unwholesome obsession with violence would do well to learn something about cultural history. A look at the cheap newspapers and crime literature so popular during the pre-Civil War era demonstrates quite clearly that things were no better in the past. Not only was violent crime rampant in the good old days, but the prurient need to hear every juicy detail was just as widespread and intense as it is now.

The book is short, and I’ll admit I found some of its reporting lacking perspective. For instance, in the margins next to this:

Their manners may have been crude, but in the area of ghastly violence medieval peasants were clearly connoisseurs, who appreciated nothing better than a nicely performed quartering, disemboweling, or beheading.

I wrote: “Okay… but WHY?”

In fairness, though, how can a literature professor writing in 2005 run a psychological profile of European peasant culture of seven centuries or so in the past? Still, I bet someone else has…

To this end, though, later in the book, Schechter cites George Stade, who wrote:

“People are fascinated by representations of murder because, in the first place, they want to kill someone and, in the second, they won’t. Surely one function of narrative is to allow in the imagination what we forbid in the flesh.”

And Schechter goes on to state that:

In short… fantasy violence isn’t a substitute for sex. It is a substitute for actual violence.

This matches with my own admittedly scientifically-lacking “study” of the effects of violent video games on American violent crime rates that shows an almost perfect match between the release of a violent video game to a decrease in the rate of violent crime in America. We are violent animals, but we’re also smart. We can replace war with football, actual torture with the Saw movie series, and actual violent crime rampages with Grand Theft Auto, and in effect we have.

The book makes it clear that while in the past, violent entertainment actually offered real violence done in the moment to real people: public executions and torture, the aforementioned public autopsy, bear baiting, and other animal torture shows…

That we react with such horrified incredulity to the mere description of the victim’s suffering is significant in itself, suggesting that—for all our exposure to virtual violence—we are actually quite sheltered from the real thing and have a very limited tolerance for it. Our popular culture may be saturated with synthetic gore, but at least we don’t spend our leisure time watching real people have their eyes put out, their limbs pulverized, their sex organs amputated, and their flesh torn to pieces with red-hot pincers.

Yikes. I second that.

When his overview of the history of violent media continues into the Penny Dreadfuls and Paris’s Grand-Guignol. This description of one such play brought to my mind the ending of Frank Darabont’s film version of Stephen King’s The Mist:

In The Final Torture, for example—one of the most famous and frequently performed of the Grand-Guignol plays—a French marine stationed outside Peking during the Boxer Rebellion has his hands cut off by the Chinese. Making his way back to his besieged embassy, he displays his mutilated stumps to the head consul, D’Hemelin, and—with his dying breath—describes the unspeakable atrocities being perpetrated against foreigners. To spare his daughter a fate worse than death, D’Hemelin shoots her in the head—only to be rescused by allied forces, who burst into the embassy seconds after the unfortunate diplomat executes his beloved child. D’Hemelin promptly goes insane.

Everything old is new again, eh?

Harold Schechter’s point is that violent entertainment has always been there, and the purpose it appears, at least, to serve is to give us both an outlet for violent fantasies and a safe experience of violence that actually has the opposite effect from the feared “desensitization” we’re so often warned of, reality be damned.

In my online horror courses, both the Horror Intensive and the new Advanced Horror course, as well as in my Pulp Fiction Workshop, I try to keep the question of violence and gore open. Each individual author is free to find their own comfort zone when it comes to the content of their fiction, be it violence/gore, explicit sex, language, and literally anything else. That’s not for some Board of Review to decide, and though there are publishers that have created their own set of guidelines, and individual agents or editors that will have their own unwritten rules—their own comfort zones—guiding their decisions on what to represent or publish, thankfully there is no Board of Review in the publishing business, so your comfort zone, whatever it may be, will find an audience with a similar comfort zone—or an audience willing to read outside that—and we’ll all be able to stake out our own claims as authors and readers. I’m glad we have books like Savage Pastimes to remind us that we aren’t descending into anything as a culture, but that we share some tendencies with our parents, grandparents, and more distant ancestors—and those tendencies don’t always look like Care Bears.

 

—Philip Athans

 

 

 

 

 

 

About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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